Native persimmons are overabundant and underappreciated | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Native persimmons are overabundant and underappreciated 

Backyard delights

One woman's wasp magnets can be the urban food forager's delight.

So I learned, one fall day, as I complained to my husband about the orange orbs leaking fragrantly and sparking a backyard bacchanalia for our insect friends.

Muttering something about the ignorance of the city-bred, my husband pronounced them persimmon fruits and began to wax poetic about the mystical goodness of his mother's persimmon pudding.

A moist holiday dessert that can have the spicy sweetness of gingerbread and the elusive hint of the incomparable fruit that early settlers likened to "plumbs" and "apricocks," persimmon pudding tends to have that effect on people, particularly Southerners who are, as the French say, of a certain age.

Spry 77-year-old Flo Johnston, a Durhamite and a longtime local religion reporter, gorged herself as a child on her Scotch-Irish family's famed persimmon pudding at reunions. She owns a comely watercolor of a plump Asian persimmon. But the pudding made from the native persimmons that dot the temperate Southeast, as well as varying recipes that give it brownie- or custardlike textures, is disappearing from the dessert table at her family's annual October confab in Moore County.

"As long as there's three or four puddings, we don't get excited. But this year, there was only one. I said to my brother, 'We can't let this pudding die.' But things are different now. There used to be farmers and trees around the church [where the gathering's held]; now there's all these retired folks from Timbuktu," says Johnston.

The pudding's plight testifies to the ever-changing foodways in a region strong on agriculture and where early European-Native contact melded culinary traditions. It's a dish where the Old World of the proto-British—with its love of sticky toffee and plum puddings far removed from the powdered stuff from a box—meets the New World of Native Americans who baked persimmons in breads and dried them for winter consumption. Thomas Jefferson, the horticulturalist president, skimmed American landscapes for persimmon trees, and in some areas of the South, persimmons provided their lush sweetness for wine.

Yet foods move in and out of favor; hence the recent emergence of everything pomegranate (including the holiday-season heresy of Pomegranate 7UP). Today, for every Flo Johnston who laments the pudding's decline, there's a person who has yet to experience the humble native persimmon and its best-known expression, the pudding.

Barry Nichols, 46, a biologist and a member of the North American Fruit Explorers (www.nafex.org), is used to the uninitiated. A co-worker asked him "So is [the persimmon] a fruit or a nut?" while scarfing down a second helping of pudding.

The persimmon can confuse: Faced with the fruit for the first time, one must wonder: Is it edible? Do I peel, eat whole, or bite like an apple? (It won't hurt to eat the peel.) How do I know it's ripe, if a "green" persimmon is orange or purplish in color like ready-to-eat ones? (The skin will practically slide off.) Do I wait until after the first frost to eat them, as is commonly said? (No.) Imagine an alien seeing a pineapple on a first mission to this planet, and there you have the perplexed reaction that most earthlings might experience when confronted with the seemingly inscrutable persimmon.

Nichols, of Louisville, Ky., created the Web site www.persimmonpudding.com to answer such questions and to share information, including recipes, about his favorite fruit. The three-year-old site garners as many as 48,000 page requests a month during the October-November height of native persimmon season.

Persimmons became a part of Nichols' diet when his trickster grandfather gave him an unripe fruit and urged him to chomp down. The young Nichols found what colonialist John Smith noted in 17th-century Virginia: "If it be not ripe, it will drawe a man's mouth awrie with much torment."

Nichols wagers that many consumers leery of persimmons' pucker power were on the sour end of similar jokes, but he agrees with Johnston that the fruit's fall from the collective palate stems from larger demographic, environmental and market shifts. Native persimmon trees cut for their valuable lumber are not replanted as often as faster-growing trees. Nichols urges developers to replant native persimmons when they try to restock cleared land; he has driven as far as five hours to check on a tree.

"As the population has gone more and more urban, you see disconnect with regional foods. It's not just persimmons. You have a homogenization and industrialization of food, and a limited [menu] of what's available. People are really familiar with tomatoes, but most people get their tomatoes in a grocery store and don't know what a tomato is. They get one or two varieties," says Nichols.

The most popular grocery store version of persimmons is the Asian persimmon, which looks like a flattened orange tomato.

"Asian persimmons have taken over, as far as a marketable fruit. They're a whole lot easier to harvest, they ship very well, and they stand up to holding in the grocery. If the natives fall from the tree and they pop, by that time, the thing that makes them [good, the pulp] also makes them not great as a fresh fruit product for sale."

While that reality can translate into a boon for small producers who render the fruit into easier-to-handle pulp (see www.persimmonpudding.com for North Carolina pulp sellers), Crook's Corner chef Bill Smith said many people are, more often than not, willing to part with the fruit for free to get rid of the mess and the animals the fruit attracts. He sees persimmons splattering the sidewalk near the police department on Chapel Hill's Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. When he had a problem with possums burrowing into the siding of his home, the wildlife removal company's solution was an unbeatable lure: persimmon butter.

Smith also remembers the presence of a fruit-bearing tree near Carrboro Elementary School. His predecessor at Crook's, the late Bill Neal, noted that same tree in his classic 1990 cookbook, Biscuits, Spoonbread & Sweet Potato Pie, writing that "it is a sad commentary, but a happy instance for me, that today's children leave the ripened fruit untouched."

Reared in the persimmon abundance of Eastern North Carolina and taking a page from his grandmothers (as well as the possums), Smith isn't going to make that mistake. Persimmon pudding is a winter staple on the menu at his West Franklin Street restaurant in Chapel Hill, and he included this recipe, one of his favorites and also inherited from Neal, in his cookbook, Seasoned in the South. It produces a fluffy pudding that belongs in the Southern pantheon with pound cake and pecan pie. Crook's Corner's persimmon pudding will be on the menu as long as supplies of the precious pulp last.

Crook's Corner Persimmon Pudding

3 cups persimmons
2 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon plus 1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 4 x 8 x 12-inch baking pan with 1 tablespoon of butter. Puree the persimmons, which will reduce them from 3 cups to 2 cups. (I prefer to use an old-fashioned food mill such as a Mulinex, but they may be pressed through a sieve or cone strainer.) Combine the puree with the buttermilk. Beat the stick of butter and the sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment until fluffy. Add the eggs one by one. By hand, in a large mixing bowl, stir the persimmons into the butter.

Sift all the dry ingredients together and fold them into the persimmon mixture. Put the batter into the baking pan, and place the pan in a larger pan and fill halfway up with warm water. Bake, uncovered, for 1 1/4 hours, or until the pudding is firm at the center, has pulled away from the sides of its pan, and a paring knife inserted into the center of the pudding comes out clean.

Serve hot with fresh whipped cream. This keeps well in the refrigerator four to five days and reheats beautifully in the oven or microwave. Serves 8-10.

Reprinted with permission from Bill Smith's Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crook's Corner and From Home (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $19.95)

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